So I’ve been asked this question a lot on youtube and tumblr and such. I was chatting with my friend Jeffry today when he asked it as well. I laid out my “Ideal Austen Order” plan for him and figured I’d share it here, if anyone is interested.
First up, Northanger Abbey. It’s super fun, witty, and approachable - plus, it’s relatively short. Though it’s not usually chosen for a ‘first Austen’ because of its reliance on Gothic genre tropes, if you know the basics of ‘maidens in castles and an uncle with a secret’ you’re good to go. Also, can we talk about Henry Tilney’s sass?
"Oh bb girl, I can talk muslin all night"
Second, Emma! Like Northanger, Emma is an incredibly FUNNY novel. But putting Northanger and Emma side by side is more than just “Hey you like funny, this funny also funny”. Emma is a more mature, elegant, concerned novel. Putting her two most comedic novels side by side really shows how Austen grows as a writer in her short life.
Third, Mansfield Park - It’s Emma’s dark twin for two big reasons. First, as Claudia Johnson has observed, while Emma is primarily concerned with a matriarch (her chapter on Emma is actually called “Woman, lovely woman, reigns alone”), Mansfield considers the opposite: an ultra patriarch, Mansfield’s horrible domineering slavemaster, Sir Thomas.
(also these flowers in the attic mofuckas are in there)
The other big reason I put Mansfield after Emma is because I see Austen as expanding Harriet Smith’s flighty, well-intentioned character, taking her largely disenfranchised social position seriously, and out of this framework, creating the most polarizing Austen heroine of all, Fanny Price. Both Harriet and Fanny are continually used and abused by wealthier people, and though we;re meant to feel for Harriet, she is ultimately a secondary character. Mansfield though, places these social inequalities center stage through Fanny Price. Mansfield is my favourite of her novels - it’s endlessly fascinating….
4. BUT SAD. Mansfield isn’t a picker-upper of a book! As such, my next pick is Sense and Sensibility. Like Mansfield, S+S can be dour and bleak. After all, it’s about nice people being forcibly evicted when their father dies (#fun!) but at the same time, it’s snarky and funny. Yknow, like this:
This combination of sadness and humour makes Sense and Sensibility a great in between book, smushed after Mansfield and before…
5. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Yes. The time has come for P+P. Enjoy it! ENJOY IT WHOLLY. It is a delight.
6. I strongly believe that the only way to finish an Austen education is with her final novel, Persuasion. It also nicely extends P+P, especially the ‘Darcy’ character type. Like Darcy, Wentworth is imperfect, but unlike Darcy, he does not change overnight to accommodate reader fantasy. People love him and people hate him. Either way, he gives you something to think about. And this also hits home the idea that as Austen kept writing, she kept thinking and rethinking, working and reworking character types into people who just feel real: flawed, inconsistent, and not quite contained by fiction. She just gets realer and realer as her work progresses.
Another reason to leave Persuasion for last: the tone is melancholy, her writing has never been more elegant, and the subject matter is, ultimately, hope. It’s a beautiful way to say bye to her novels.
PS: photo cred goes to the flawless @theotherausten !!
This is fantastic. I love this reading order. I want to try it this way on my next re-reads.